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When David slays Goliath

35 comments

A Singaporean wine writer, Curtis Marsh, the other day reported on a blind wine tasting whose results will knock your sox off.

Or maybe not. I have to confess my initial reaction was to be stunned, but then, the more I thought about it, the more my position shifted to, “Well, why not? It could happen to anyone.”

For the tasting, they had five flights. Each flight consisted of two wines: a super-famous, expensive French “Goliath,” and a far less expensive “David,” made in the same style as the French superstar.

Here are the flights and the wines (All prices are Singaporean currency.)

2006 Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay from Nelson, New Zealand ($65) vs. 2006 Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles Premier Cru ($240)

2006 Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir from Central Otago ($100) vs. Domaine Meo Camuzet Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru from Burgundy ($390)

2004 Fontodi Vigna del Sorbe Chianti Classico from Tuscany ($95) vs. 2004 Chateau Mouton Rothschild ($560)

2006 Rolf Binder Heinrich Shiraz-Mourvedre-Grenache from the Barossa Valley, Australia ($35) vs. 2006 Pierre Usseglio Chateauneuf du Pape Mon Aieul ($148)

2004 Tschida Chardonnay Trockenbeerenauslese from Burgenland, Austria (half bottle $59) vs. 2004 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes ($388)

You know where this is going. “[W]ith a clean sweep in every bracket, ‘David’, was indisputably victorious on this occasion and compelling evidence that without the prejudice of knowing the label, status or rarity of the wine, the correlation between price and tangible quality or perceived enjoyment is highly debatable,” Marsh wrote.

You want to know who the judges were? Marsh described them as “20 participants…none of whom are wine professionals but a broad representation of nationalities and all well-traveled, relatively wine savvy, open-minded-palates…” So no wine critics, but what makes anyone think 20 wine critics, or even 20 MWs, might not have arrived at the same conclusion?

The reason I was initially stunned was because I could see David upsetting Goliath in 2 or 3 of the flights, but all five? Come on. These are some of the most famous, desirable wines in the world, routinely scoring gigantic Parker points. (By the way, I wonder how Parker would have fared had he participated in the Singapore tasting. Not that we’ll ever know.)

Well, like I said, it could happen to anyone. And if you don’t believe that, try a tasting like this on your own.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel, chap. 17), David kills Goliath with a stone from a slingshot, then decapitates him with Goliath’s own sword. That happened in the Valley of Elah, which today is a center of Israeli viticulture. In this modern-day saga of David vs. Goliath, the fatal blow was delivered in Singapore, and it was not a sword or a stone that felled the giant, but 20 palates, all in agreement.

P.S. The 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference will be in Charlottesville, Virginia, next July. I had voted for Paso Robles, but that’s democracy for you. The Virginia Governor himself, Bob McDonnell, announced it. That’s proof of how far and how fast the conference has come, in just three years. Congratulations to Alan Wright, Reno Walsh and the other organizers and, obviously, to Tom Wark for starting this phenomenon.

  1. Thom Calabrese says:

    You might want to check your info. Bev Perdue is our Gov and Charlottesville is in Virginia

  2. Charlottesville, Virginia?

  3. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve, i agree in full with all you write, but i’ll add my 4 cents: The slightly above of the average consumer, taster tends to favor both strong, powerful, parkerish olive oil and wine. These people who are still learning how to sort out a decent wine (the aromas, color, mouth, intensity, diversity, etc etc) tend to lean towards the easier to drink/taste wine and oil.

    Open the bottle and you have huge intensity of flavour and aromas, but NOT a vast array of aromas and everything else that characterizes a very good wine. Hope to have contributed something…..

  4. Not shocking to me at all and part of the reason I never do those vs tastings. French wines are not made to be flashy and showy, they are designed for the table and are therefore often lighter, less oaked and not as ripe….as they were made to be. Complexity and elegance often take more than a sip or two to discover which is why these tastings are so profoundly stupid to me. It’s like entering a cat in a dog show or going on a date with someone that is gorgeous but you realize an hour in that they are painfully stupid.

  5. Oops, my bad. Charlottesville Virginia. Sorry everybody in both states!

  6. Seems a bit stagey to me. Just because they pitted the same vintages against each other does not mean those vintages were equally good in the pairs.

  7. Well, I’d have to say as the media relations manager for Wilson Daniels Ltd., which represents Domaine Leflaive and Felton Road, this test is bittersweet. What I do think it proves, unsurprisingly, is that great wines can be made by great winemakers in regions outside of France and that price is not always an indicator of quality, but more often the cost of producing wines from a specific region or vineyard.

  8. Trained wine drinkers should be able to provide an educated guess of the grapes macro-origin, but at that price level (above US$ 50), there is no discernible difference in terms of “tangible quality”, between the wines in each flight.
    “Perceived enjoyment”, on the other hand, is eminently subjective.
    The results don’t surprise me at all.

  9. I suppose you could raise the question of how the challengers would fare against the French Wines in 5, 10 years or more…

  10. We have been talking about hosting a blind pinot tasting and are looking for some good ideas. This provides a good case study. Sometimes it is good to get the consumers opinoin. Thanks for bringing up another good topic Steve.

  11. I’d be surprised if the David wines were cheapies, but these are pretty high level. So New World fruit and power will usually win over classic Old World finesse. And picking the most expensive French wines in the world – who doesn’t believe they are way overpriced? So this doesn’t really prove much of anything, except you can find very good wines from all over if you are willing to plunk down more than $8 a bottle.

  12. Ian Johnson says:

    The tasting panel “none of whom are wine professionals…all well-traveled, relatively wine savvy, open-minded-palates” pretty much negates most assumptions that we can make about this “tasting competition”. The one thing it successfully concludes is that if you have an amateur tasting panel you are guaranteed to get the same results each time. Wines with an emphasis on fruit rather than structure will almost always win, particularly if the overall quality of the wines is comparable. In this tasting both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir pairs are fruit vs structure. The matching of Chianti vs Bordeaux is particularly troubling even though vintages in both were of similar quality. Sangiovese will always show more than Cab at this stage just as Merlot would in Bordeaux. Australia vs Rhone goes back to fruit vs structure and had a couple of MW’s been present it would have been obvious that the Australian wine was most likely acidified. In my opinion, detracting very much from a sense of overall quality. Pairing two botrytized wines of significantly different alcohol levels (Austria 10/France 14) further skews the results.
    It is true, that for the lay person, quality perception based on raw enjoyment of the wines can bring into question why pay for these other “great wines”. Fortunately we do have professional tasters who can qualify the quality of wines such as Mouton so that these wines will continue to be made and not lost to continued match-ups such as this one.

  13. Ian, I’m not sure I agree, but you have stated your case very well.

  14. Ian Johnson says:

    Steve. Does it not concern you that in the original article the tasting panel thought that both NZ wines were from France? Are amateur tasters able to exclude influence from their own minds? The premise of this tasting is to show that there are brilliant wines for much less money than some top quality French estates. No one can deny this, particularly in a challenging economy. But do you think we could look at price objectively. If Domaine Leflaive made 30,000 cases of their Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles would the price be so high. Supply and demand will always drive prices. It doesn’t mean that the wine is intrinsically worth what they are asking for it. And price has never been the end-all definition of quality.
    By the way. I enjoy reading your blog and appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts.

  15. Ian, I’m just wondering if “professional” tasters would arrive at more valid conclusions than “amateur” tasters of the kind that participated in the Singapore tasting. I have been to tastings with MWs where there was significant disagreement among them. I don’t think it’s possible to say that “professional tasters will always be able to differentiate New Zealand from Burgundy” (or whatever). That gives “professional” tasters too much credit.

  16. Ian Johnson says:

    I suppose it depends on who the professional tasters are. I know. seems a bit elitist here, but, it would be very difficult to pass practical 1 and 2 of The Master of Wine Examination if you couldn’t tell the difference between Burgundy and New Zealand. You are correct that there is not always agreement among MWs. These disagreements are usually concerning structural components/quality assessments/maturation etc. and not about place of origin pertaining to at least region. The point that I hope is made here though is that of the x amount of people reading the article about the tasting .9x of them will come away from it with a best/worst mentality. I think it serves no one to dumb down wine quality assessment to this level. Not even the winners in the New World who always seem to choose France as their target.

  17. Ian, good points again. But I wouldn’t just glide past the elitist issue. It’s never been clear to me why we value the opinions of MWs as though they were gods on high. What they are, are specialists in an extremely narrow niche, competing for very specialized jobs in the wine and restaurant industries. That is rather irrelevant to the ordinary needs of wine consumers, even educated ones. I mean, why is it important that a wine critic be able to distinguish between New Zealand and France? It’s something of a parlor trick, akin to guessing a wine in a blind tasting. Impressive, yes. Important, no.

  18. Richard Albert says:

    I truly dislike stacked tastings
    For example:
    2004 Mouton vs. the 2004 Fontadi
    One is a “drink now” wine the other is not ready. Gee, which is going to taste better—duh!! An excellent Italian year vs a tough Bordeaux year.
    In addition—a mature Sangio vs a tight young Bordeax–how about apples vs apples!!!
    Rhones:
    An Usseglio that needs time to mature vs. a Aussie low acid, mature fruit bomb. Once again a chicken poop match up.
    Sweeties
    A late harvest Chard that is usually a short lived wine, tasting good young vs a terrible Yquem.
    Are you kidding me—why read about crappy stacked, tastings like this and write about them? These things are set up to get inaccurate conclusions and publicity. I bet I could set up a tasting with under $30 vs the most expensive wines of a given type and have the cheaper wines “win” because all the young wine has to to is be more mature and tastier now than the expensive ones.
    Ridiculous, sneaky concept that sucks people in!!!

  19. Ian Johnson says:

    Would love to sit down one day and have this conversation over a glass of wine. We may never agree, but isn’t that just the beauty of wine. As someone who is planning on sitting the exam in 11 months it’s a bit depressing to think that the general public believes that the ability to distinguish between NZ and Bug. is not much more than a parlor trick and not the result of a tremendous amount of work, time and money using a very structured approach to tasting. I’m not saying this as someone who is upset by it. What you state is true. This is the general consensus. As even I am starting to annoy myself with my continued responses I will sign off now.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  20. Fontodi CCR “Vigna del Sorbo” 2004 is a “drink now”?!
    I bet several professional wine reviewers would prefer it to a 2004 Mouton; even in an open tasting.

  21. What I find interesting is that so few of these “parlor tricks “are done publicly
    by the professional tasting class. Every time there is a new test that fails to back up the standard line that quality/complexity come at a cost you circle your wagons and defend the status quo.
    There are hundreds of mws. and plenty of professional wine tasters, set up a test that allows for maturity of the wine not just vintage years. God forbid that Burgundy was opened too soon ;-) Do it double blind with no info at all. Show us what you got.( And lets hope they don’t add red food color to the whites)
    Thank you Steve for interesting topics

  22. Steve and Ian, Please let me know if you sit down for a discussion over a glass of wine–I’d be happy to supply the wine!

  23. Lori, do we get to choose the wines? Ian, I nominate Cheval Blanc ’47, for starters.

  24. John, I will always try to come up with interesting stuff for my readers.

  25. Ian Johnson says:

    John. You are quite right. There are hundreds of MW’s. 280 members currently part of an organization that was started in 1955.
    Lori. Thanks for the kind offer. We’ll see if we can get Steve to Yountville at the end of next January. Steve. I’ll drink that.
    Cheers.

  26. I really enjoyed this article and I’ve learned a lot from the comments. I especially agree with some of the comments about elitism and am actually working on a thesis for my MBA around technology that can help avoid that elitism and make wine more accessible for new wine drinkers. If anyone wants to help or learn more, we have a short 5 min survey going.

    http://www.winepeer.com/survey0610

    Oh and if you take the survey you get entered to win a free bottle of wine.

  27. Tone Kelly says:

    None of the results surprise me. I think the flights were carefully constructed with the intent to get the results desired. I mention this because Friday I had a 2002 Joseph Drouhin Le Montrachet. When poured and tasted, the wine was muted, and very tight and closed. Many of the previous White Burgundies of average pedigree were much better, open and tasting very well. I kept some of the 2002 in a glass. 40 minutes later, the wine opened up and was an unbelievable knockout. The wines in the tasting (those who lost) take a while to open up and reveal themselves – both in the glass as well as taking many more years in the bottle to develop the 2ndary aromas.

  28. An excellent exchange of comments for driving home the point of two classes of wine drinkers, those in the know (“nose”) and those who just want some vino at a reasonable cost to enhance their meals. Let the pros pursue their nuances and high priced wines with “finesse” and “elegance” (=leanness) while regular people with discriminating tastes, who actually buy the wine, make decisions based on “perceived enjoyment”. As we approach La Fete Nationale…Vive l’Amerique.

  29. Tom, “elegance” is not the same as “leanness.” Far from it. Elegance is harmony of all parts. A big Cabernet can be elegant. Leanness is thinness of fruit, usually because of overcropping or watering down the wine, or diluting it with press juice.

  30. I’d agree with Steve; an elegant wine isn’t necessarily “lean” as Tom so dysphemistically points out. This sounds like the classic argument from the folks who make big fat wines with no acid and tons of oak. They call low alc, lighter bodied wines, “lean or thin”. I love that weak argument. It’s so easy to dis-spell.

  31. I appreciate your distinction Steve. And yes, some French Bordeaux are truly elegant in the sense you describe. However, to me too many French wines that inevitably have the terms “finesse” or “elegant” attached to them come across as lean and, yes, thin, lacking sufficient fruit. The difference in climate does make a difference. Ironically, I would juxtapose Randy’s wines at Harvest Moon with the more restrained Frenchies to make my point. I’m certainly not defending the Big and Bold.

    This traditional distinction may be falling by the wayside, if Mondovino is to be believed.

  32. Tom, I had dinner tonight with a lady who ordered a 2005 Bordeaux (Branaire Ducru). She detested it and thought it was lean and fruitless.
    It was actually a pretty good wine but way too young to drink now. I would suspect that French wines that are described as having finesse
    and elegance by knowledgeable critics are probably too young to appreciate. But that doesn’t mean they lack fruit. On the other hand, if
    a wine really lacks fruit, then it’s hard to say it has finesse or elegance, although I’ve probably used the term “elegant” to describe a few
    wines that may have lacked fruit, but had a very nice tannin-acid-mineral balance and were dry.

  33. David Strada says:

    Steve-

    A another good blog and some interesting discussion. But, to put the tasting in perspective, have you tasted the Neudorf 2006 Moutere Chardonnay or the Felton Road 2006 Block 3 Pinot Noir? I cannot speak from experience for the other wines in the tasting, but these two are outstanding, regardless of who attended this event. And as noted, the pricing makes it all the more worth noting.

  34. Just picked up a case of the 2006 Rolf Binder Heinrich Shiraz-Mourvedre-Grenache for a grand total $178.00. Better than a sharp stick in the eye

  35. Slip in an Aligote from Burgundy to show those NZ bastards what acid is!

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